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About “See the veil for what it is”

Written by Sherwin, published on December 14, 2011

Charles Darwin in a hat

It is likely that any article written by a white male journalist that starts with a title like “See the veil for what it is” would raise my hackles. So when I saw the article today I had a bit of a reflexive response: here’s another white guy, with little demonstrated understanding of women’s issues, feminism, or Islam, about to tell us what the veil really is.

Dan Gardner wrote the piece, today, December 14.1 It’s not as bad as many articles written on the topic. But there are some significant failures of reasoning.

I should note that I am not an expert in Islam, immigration policies, or pyschology.2 I should also note that Dan Gardner has written two books in psychology, which in his words are “books praised by psychologists.” I should also note that I find Gardner’s writing generally better than then average newspaper or magazine reporter.3 But this is also part of the problem.

First problem

The column is a total of twenty three paragraphs. Most of the article is a review of some basic psychology.4 Starting at the fifth paragraph, a full twelve paragraphs are committed to reflecting on human psychology, faces, brains, pattern recognition and human emotions. If the article was just about this, I would have no problem. Most of the notes Gardner makes about emotions and faces I find reasonable. You can find most of it in TED talks, or books on popular psychology or even in Skeptic Magazine. It’s worth reading and reflecting on these kinds of issues. And I’m happy to see newspapers trying to publish this kind of information.

The problem is what happens before and after those twelve paragraphs. The last of theses twelve paragraphs is this:

This work, along with a mountain of other research, has established that the face is hardwired into human psychology. It is the locus of identity. It is the canvas of emotion. We are so supremely sensitive to faces that the tiniest changes in facial musculature — even inadvertent or unconscious changes — can completely alter the apparent meaning of spoken words. Suppressed anger can be revealed, desires surfaced, lies exposed. A subtle affection may be expressed. A deeper trust established.

I mostly agree with all of this. The face is important to human psychology. It is a canvas of emotion. Micro-expressions are interesting. Emotions can be revealed. A deeper trust can be established through the mutual sharing of facial expressions. It’s all good, if a little banal.

I don’t believe, however, that the face is “the” locus of identity. I doubt any psychologist would say so. It is a locus. You can see here that Gardner has begun his descent into fuzzy reasoning. He needs to in order to do what happens next.

In the very next paragraph, a claim is made that damns the entire article. In the very next paragraph, number sixteen, he claims:

But none of that can happen if a veil is in the way.

If he had just said, the veil can interfere with this, I would be okay with that. Heck, I think sunglasses interfere with some pattern recognition and social interactions. I think hats do to. That’s why poker players wear sunglasses and hats. But to conclude that none of this can happen with a veil is unfounded. None is an absolute term. None is total. It’s rhetoric. And it’s rhetoric from someone who probably has never interviewed, or had a basic relationship with, a woman that wears a veil. 5

Gardner goes on to write that a woman “who consistently wears a veil in public is cut off from the people around her” – another claim that has no argument, no citation, no data, no evidence to back it up. Similarly with his claim that “she has no identity.” That’s utterly false.

A woman who chooses to wear a veil still has her words, her voice, her body, her eyes, her hands, her movements, her behaviours, her choices, and probably myriad other important loci of identity, with which to create and maintain relationships.

Luckily, a woman who has actually chosen to wear a veil wrote to Gardner to try to help him understand the topic that he was publishing on. But, unfortunately, his response demonstrated we he failed to see why her criticism crushed some of his central claims.

A second problem in reasoning

In the fourth paragraph, Gardner argues that the veil “cripples integration.” I think this is his thesis and the rest of the article is meant to be a kind of theoretical argument for it. But he actually presents no direct evidence of this. And it’s no wonder. This is actually a hard issue and I doubt a newspaper has enough interest or money to pay someone to get clear on the issue. There could be a hundred reasons with women wearing a veil might have a hard time integrating into Canada. To his credit, Gardner does mention repeatedly that bigotry is also a problem, but he never really grapples with it enough to satisfy me that he takes it seriously.

But I think basically his argument looks something like this:

premise 1: Human faces are essential to good social functioning.
premise 2: Anything that partly covers the face, will block good social functioning.
premise 3: A veil covers the face.
conclusion 1: A veil blocks good social functioning.

premise 4: Good social functioning is necessary to social integration.
premise 5: The veil blocks good social functioning.
conclusion 2: Therefore, the veil blocks social integration.

This kind of reasoning is much more interesting if we can actually see what the arguments are.6

I actually think that premise 1 and premise 2 are both demonstrably false. Human faces are not essential to normal human social functioning. Nor is covering part or all of the face sufficient to blocking good social functioning. That’s why telephones work. That’s why internet chat works. That’s why veils at weddings are so great. That’s why it makes sense sometimes to wear a veil to a funeral. The poker game succeeds just fine when the superstar wears sunglasses. Scuba divers wear masks and welders too. Veils work just fine in some contexts.

In the case of music auditions, large veils, that block gender and race assignments, actually improve social functioning.7

The issue here is context. We live in a misogynist and patriarchal context. We live in a culture that makes jokes about rape. We live in a society where the single largest cause of nonfatal injury to women, is abuse from a partner.8 We live in culture that is racist towards Islamic people and brown people.

So does a veil “cripple social integration”? Good question. Maybe it does. But I reject the claim, without signifcant evidence, in a context where white men feel entitled to police the behaviours of women and racialized minorities.

It is more plausible to me that more important determinants to failed integration include: misogyny, racism and language barriers.

A third problem in reasoning (Actually it’s not a problem: update)

In the first few paragraphs, Gardner claims that veils are anti-woman, anti-social, and anti-human.9

Someone could plausibly construe the rest of his article as an argument (even if unconvincing) as to why the veil is anti-social. But there is obviously no argument as to why the veil is anti-woman or anti-human. To do so would require some more premises like this:

  • Any behaviour that is anti-social, if committed by a woman, is also anti-woman.
  • Any behaviour that impedes or changes social interactions, is anti-woman.
  • Because our evolutionary forebears didn’t wear veils, it is anti-woman, for a woman do to so now.
  • Because most human brains can’t resist looking at and recognizing faces, it is anti-woman for women to wear veils.

These premises are all obviously bogus. But perhaps Gardner has some better premises that he’s not telling us about. Until then, his claims are not reasonable, and his conclusions are not warranted.

[udpate]

After a considerable and difficult Twitter exchange with Dan Gardner, he expressed some concerns with my analysis. This third problem might not be a problem. He pointed out that his argument was roughly this:

They [veils] make it very difficult for women to fully engage as equals in society.

Here is the approach that I didn’t see. He claims others did. I don’t necessarily agree with it, but it is a plausible approach that deserves further consideration. Regrettably, Gardner thinks of himself as a “human talking about other humans” and doesn’t appear to have a gender analysis or an analysis of power and privilege. So, there you go.

He said some stuff I agree with

I’ve already mentioned that Gardner makes many true and interesting claims about faces and human brains. Gardner also concludes the article by saying that “we must protect a stigmatized minority from bigots” and that we must “defend the freedom to dress as we wish to the greatest extent practicable.” I agree.

In summary

Gardner’s article might be contributing to public discourse about women’s rights and veils. But Gardner’s article also contributes in some unhelpful ways. The column contributes to the prevalent cultural norm that it’s okay for guys to, injudiciously10, theorize about what is anti-social, anti-woman and anti-human. When men do so, there should be an expectation of a greater burden of proof. Tacit premises should be made explicit. Personal bias, thoughts and reflections should be duly noted. Citation should be required (give me a hyperlink). And one’s recognized expertise about the issue, in this case Islam and veils, could be helpfully included.

But at the very least, the reasoning shouldn’t be fallacious.

  1. You can find the article at the Ottawa Citizen and probably also on his personal site soon.
  2. For more information about the niqab, see this article or this article about the hijab.
  3. You can check out Gardner’s personal site here.
  4. By basic, I mean that most of this stuff gets covered in introductory psychology classes.
  5. This is speculation, please correct me if I’m wrong here.
  6. Perhaps Gardner intended for premise one to be “human faces are important (not necessary or essential) to human functioning.” There are actually lots of ways to tweak this argument to make less absolute and more interesting. And in this regard Gardner’s article is interesting. Although I should note, that even with a revised premise, most of my criticism hold.
  7. Malcolm Gladwell makes this point: because the bias of human resource professionals is so strong many good players get rejected if veils, or screens, aren’t used.
  8. The Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery (American). 2008;90:1590-1597. doi:10.2106/JBJS.G.01188 http://www.ejbjs.org/cgi/content/abstract/90/7/1590
  9. He also claims that the arguments for and against banning veils in public are reasonable.
  10. Update: thank you to Matt for pointing in the comments out that this sentence needed a qualifier.
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Archived comments

  1. […] may also be interested to read my original assessment, my further reflection and Dan Gardner’s original article. […]

  2. Sherwin says:

    Thank you, Naomi. I’ve promoted your comment to the top of the heap. I actually did read through the comments at the Ottawa Citizen. I found some of them insightful though. But, in general, I know what you mean.

  3. Claudia says:

    Not sure if this is working. But just wanted to add that I thought that Dan’s article was weak.

  4. Sherwin says:

    Hi again Matt. I just wanted to add that I think it is interesting that you find my writing annoying. I do take this seriously. Sometimes I wonder if I should work harder at affecting a more respectful tone. I think I probably struggle with this.

  5. Sherwin says:

    Okay. Let’s try to deal with this, one item at a time.

    1. Not true. I didn’t say that Gardner was irresponsible. I said that, overall, his article was irresponsible (actually, I never even put this in the article, although I do think this). In fact, I opened by saying that his reporting is generally better than most.

    2. I concede that my premises are my attempt to reconstruct his argument. I said so in my article. He never made an explicit argument. I’m stoked for someone to say that I got the premises wrong. But as I pointed out, his bad conclusion is still bad, even with revised terms; even, I would note, with your suggestion to use the term “important.” His conclusions are still unwarranted.

    3. I did ask Gardner whether he knows a woman that has chosen to wear the veil, and he didn’t answer. I took that as “probably” – but notice that I included a footnote, inviting someone to correct me. By the way, I asked Gardner why he ignores feedback from women who choose to wear the veil. He said essentially, that it doesn’t fit with his view of human nature. The question of Gardner’s expertise in Islam and the wearing of the veil is relevant, don’t you agree?

    4. The issue of ad hominem is confusing. I *think* I have accused Gardner of, in the case of this article, employing bad reasoning, misusing evidence, and contributing to a *possibly* irresponsible cultural milieu of criticizing women’s choices. And I *think* I have done due diligence in substantiating my claims. But it’s confusing to me, because Gardner has called me “snotty” and a “troll”. Gardner even went so far as to say it was unfair of me to write a long article criticizing his short article. So as far as I can tell, all of the unsubstantiated personal attacks, have been, so far, directed at me. And yet my concerns are earnest.

    5. It is true that Gardner wrote an article that I wouldn’t have. I agree with that.

    6. Your final paragraph is confusing to me. I never said veils help. I think the issue is complicated and deserves deeper consideration. But even if the veils *did* help, there might be a hundred other contributing factors as to why the correlation you suggest is not observable.

    One last note. I have never defended those that force women to wear a veil against their will. The issue at hand is the more complicated issue: is the consensual wearing of a veil anti-woman, anti-human and anti-social as Gardner has concluded. And, by the way, while I think Gardner’s conclusions are hasty, and problematic, I think the question is still an open one.

  6. MattK says:

    The more I read your writing, the irritating it becomes.

    To answer your question: No. I think Dan Gardner is not always right, but I think that he is fair, clearer than most, and responsible. I think you are simply trying to shut down opinions you don’t like by pronouncing on who is privileged to speak about this issue or that and that you would hypocritically decry the same sort of actions if done by someone who you disagreed with. I think that the criterion you employ to determine the legitimacy of an argument by determining how “helpful” it is (presumably to the politics and opinions you happen to favour) is anti-intellectual and a bit cowardly.

    I think that you mischaracterize Gardner’s arguments. I think that there is no plausible charitable interpretation of the extent that you do this. One thing I’ve noticed is that as soon as internet philosophers start to make a list of premises of their interpretation of someone else’s argument it is a very good sign that a strawman is being constructed.

    “premise 1: Human faces are essential to good social functioning.” Replace that with “Human faces are important for good social function”

    “premise 2: Anything that partly covers the face, will block good social functioning.” Replace with ” Anything that partly covers the face, will impede good social functioning.”

    “I actually think that premise 1 and premise 2 are both demonstrably false.” Well, you would think that, because you constructed them to be that way. I do notice that you don’t bother to put the “demonstrate” in “demonstrably”.

    “If he had just said, the veil can interfere with this, I would be okay with that. Heck, I think sunglasses interfere with some pattern recognition and social interactions. I think hats do to. That’s why poker players wear sunglasses and hats. But to conclude that none of this can happen with a veil is unfounded. None is an absolute term. None is total. It’s rhetoric. And it’s rhetoric from someone who probably has never interviewed, or had a basic relationship with, a woman that wears a veil.”

    Ok, let’s deal with this right now. That last sentence. That is “total” rhetoric. How do you know whether he has had a personal relationship with someone who wears the veil or not? You have no idea. This is a (somewhat) subtle ad hom argument – you are making an assertion about your oponent for which you have no evidence (not that having evidence makes it any less of an ad hom) in order to claim that he has no right to even present the argument. The irony is entertaining. I would love to see you try to explain a purpose for that sentence other than “total” rhetoric.

    Second of all, let us consider the strawman that is sentence five. You present Gardner’s statement “But none of that can happen if a veil is in the way.” as referring to ALL social interactions when it is clear that, in context, it refers to communication through facial expressions.

    Your next list of premises is ridiculous to the point of being farcial.

    “That’s why internet chat works. ” LMFAO.

    “In the case of music auditions, large veils, that block gender and race assignments, actually improve social functioning.” Oh boy. The very things that niqab’s AMPLIFY.

    “That’s why veils at weddings are so great” They are?

    “That’s why it makes sense sometimes to wear a veil to a funeral.” Why?

    “The poker game succeeds just fine when the superstar wears sunglasses.” Who cares?

    “Scuba divers wear masks and welders too. ” Yeah, and we all know how they liven up a party with their welding masks and regulators. Too bad they’re not allowed to take them off when they go to the supermarket.

    “To his credit, Gardner does mention repeatedly that bigotry is also a problem, but he never really grapples with it enough to satisfy me that he takes it seriously.” Translation: He didn’t write the article that you would have written.

    If veils help more than they hurt women’s participation in the wider society, one would expect a correlation between equality and participation and the frequency with which women wear veils. If we look around the world at, say, Iran, Afghanistan, and Saudi, what do we see? Equality? Participation?

  7. Sherwin says:

    In his defense, Gardner did say that the length and “in print” constraints of the format prevented him from longer digressions and provisos. But ultimately, I found that unpersuasive. He could have fixed most of the problems by simply using more careful language.

    Which, maybe your theory about the editorial board changing the language, in order to make the article more controversial, speaks to that. That’s interesting. It lacks integrity, if true. But it’s interesting. If it is true, then they have put advertising revenue over earnest research. Hopefully Gardner wouldn’t have stood for that.

    Although the fact that he made such poor inferences is also a mystery. It occurs to me that someone could actually argue, from all the same psychological and biological premises, to the complete reverse conclusion.

    Veils filter and shift social interactions in a way that allows the wearer to gather information but not to have information gathered about them. Like poker players. So there is a social advantage to wearing a veil, in a context that is abusive, partriarchal, or anti-feminist.

    I’m not making that argument, for the same reasons that I think it’s irresponsible to be making the argument that Gardner did. But it’s interesting to see how Gardner’s style of impulsive theorizing could lead to the opposite conclusions.

  8. Thought Bot says:

    It appeared that Dan was trying to position himself as a reasonable voice. Surrprising that he made such leaps. I wonder if the Ottawa Citizen editor changed his words to make the article more argumentative and bombastic?

  9. Sherwin says:

    Good point. Maybe I should add the word ‘irresponsibly’? As in, “The column contributes to the prevalent cultural norm that it’s okay for guys to theorize irresponsibly about what is anti-social, anti-woman and anti-human.”

    Given the context and the thrust of my other criticisms, do you think this would make more sense?

  10. MattK says:

    “The column contributes to the prevalent cultural norm that it’s okay for guys to theorize about what is anti-social, anti-woman and anti-human”

    It is OK. You’re doing it, are you not?

  11. Naomi says:

    Did you see the comments at the Citizen? The comments are hard to read – both for and against the veil. This review of the article is a breath of fresh air.